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New research points to 'newness' as greater risk factor for injuries than age

By Linda Johnson
| www.cos-mag.com
Curtis Breslin

Lack of on-the-job experience may be a more important factor than age in determining occupational injury rates, a new study from the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) says.

New research by Curtis Breslin, scientist at the IWH, found that over a 10-year period, the risk of work injury for workers with shorter job tenure has consistently remained higher compared with those employed at a job for more than one year.

“When we look at lost-time claims, and when we look at the month that those claims happened, we find that it’s a ‘new-worker effect,’ not a ‘young-worker effect,’ that inexperience, being new on the job, is a risk factor for everybody,” says Breslin, whose research will be published later this month in the IWH newsletter, At Work.

In Ontario, Breslin notes, the injury rate of young workers (those aged 15–24) has historically been higher than that of older workers. Yet, the gap between the two has been closing in the last five to seven years so that, today, the claim rate of younger workers is very close to that of older workers. Instead of focusing on age, then, his research examined injuries in relation to length of time workers had been on the job.

Breslin says the findings show that managers must provide proper safety training to all new workers, not just young people, who make up only 10 per cent of the workforce.

“This is a bigger issue, especially in an economy where you have a lot of temporary jobs, a lot of moving from job to job. This affects everybody,” he says.

In addition to the three Es of injury prevention — engineering, education and enforcement — employers should look at new, innovative injury prevention approaches, Breslin says. For example, following the model of the graduated driver’s licence, he recommends that managers assign new workers in low-risk areas, as a means of practice, before putting them into high-risk conditions.

Government initiatives, such as safety awareness blitzes and increased inspections in high-risk industries, are also essential, he adds.

“Many employers have good intentions, but some may lack knowledge. The thing to do is to find the various ways to support employers to meet their legal obligations for work safety, but with new workers in particular,” he says.

Chris Liddy, OHS specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, agrees the most important factor in workplace injury is inexperience.

He says employers are required by law to provide information and instruction to new workers about safe work policies and on procedures specific to the company and to the work the worker will perform.

Once they’ve explained workplace safety rules and hazards, Liddy says, employers should provide continuing supervision and make sure the rules are, in fact, being followed.

They should also ensure a supervisor or manager is available at all times to answer questions and provide advice. One effective approach is to set up a coaching program, in which new workers are paired with experienced workers, he adds.

Though all new workers need thorough and continuing training, employers can take extra steps to help younger employees, Liddy says. Young workers, for example, may be reluctant to take concerns or questions to new, unfamiliar co-workers. It is, therefore, a good idea at the start to introduce them to key people in the organization, such as the health and safety manager and the OHS committee representatives.

Knowing who they should talk to if something happens will likely make young workers more comfortable raising a safety issue.

“Young people tend to have less life experience and sometimes less experience in the workplace,” he says.

“So having a mentorship [system], getting them in touch with all the important people in the workplace, explaining their different roles and then providing follow-up can really be helpful.”

Most important, Liddy says, is for employers to continue to remind young workers of the real and practical importance of adhering to safety policies.

“Someone can sit you down, train you in a classroom and tell you something. But it’s different when you’ve actually seen the implementation in the workplace,” he says.

“Someone who’s been on the job for 20 years may have a much more in-depth understanding of how [the safety rule] is implemented and why it’s important to be there.”

Breslin’s findings will be posted on the IWH website after July 25 and can be found at www.iwh.on.ca/at-work.

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